Baltimore's odd, charming window shops

Offbeat shop windows are Baltimore's colorful answer to bland corporate displays

  • The Antique Man in Fells Point has a religious store window display that features a reclining Christ figure, wood-carved saints, angels, flowers and prayers and mass cards left by passers-by.
The Antique Man in Fells Point has a religious store window display… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
March 13, 2011|By Laura Vozzella, The Baltimore Sun

Bob Gerber, owner of the Antique Man in Fells Point, devotes part of his storefront window to a jumble of religious keepsakes: A reclining Christ, four wood-carved saints, flowers, and signs.

Not the most obvious way to lure people into a shop selling antiques, but then again, Gerber sees his religious window, at 1806 Fleet St., as something of a community service.

"We have so many immigrants in the neighborhood, they stop by and say their prayers, at least 100 people a day," he said.

Any merchant can showcase stock in his window. It takes a special sort — an artistic, quirky, Baltimore sort — to fill the front with offbeat stuff that might not even be for sale, from the giant clown heads that have graced a Howard Street costume shop window for a generation to the Hampden collectibles shop displays that are always changing, and always involve Pee-wee Herman.

The live monkeys once displayed in the window of Hess Shoes in Edmondson Village Shopping Center may be long gone. So are the petrified rats that crept into the display at Klein's Antiques in Federal Hill not long before the place closed in 2005. But wacky retail windows — exercises in artistic expression more than straightforward attempts to move merchandise — live on.

"It's almost like having that Christmas 'ooh-ahhh' feeling throughout the year," said Joe Witkowski, the 39-year-old Maryland Institute College of Art graduate who has designed elaborate windows for Hampden Junque for about the past two years, when he became a partner in the store.

Gerber sees his religious window, at 1806 Fleet St., as something of a community service.

"We have so many immigrants in the neighborhood, they stop by and say their prayers, at least 100 people a day," he said.

While they all don't inspire prayer or qualify as art, unconventional store windows are a blessing for those weary of retail conformity.

"The large corporations, like the Gap, American Eagle, wherever you go, you see the same exact window," said Alice Greely-Nelson, owner of Display Chicks, a Baltimore visual merchandising firm. "A lot of these stores, they get a picture book [from headquarters] of how they want their windows — these specific clothes, these specific props. There's no creativity to those windows anymore."

Greely-Nelson recently did a display in Towson for a national clothing chain — she's not at liberty to say which — and she put a little "twist" on the corporate concept, using a different background color and unique props.

"The managers loved it because it gave a different look than the corporate windows looked like and then the district manager came and flipped," Greely-Nelson said.

Compare that to the liberties taken at All Time Toys, at 8185 Main St. in Ellicott City, where the most unlikely combinations of vintage toys cavorting in the window. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man looms over a statue of Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar, while Darth Vader lurks behind Eeyore and Tigger.

"We had Chuck Norris on a swan," said owner John Gallogly. "You've got Spider-Man hanging out with Care Bears. We try and mix it up."

A.T. Jones & Sons, maker of opera costumes, has giant papier-mache clown heads in its North Howard Street window. Created for an early 20th-century amusement park, the clowns have been in the window since 1982, said store owner George Goebel.

No one can accuse Hampden Junque of resting on its visual-merchandising laurels. Its 4-by-8-foot neon-lit window, at 1006 W. 36th St., has had 100 displays in the store's 16 years, with themes such as silver-and-black, 1950s Baltimore, smoking and drinking, body parts, metal and food, said Michal Makarovich, one of the store's three founders.

No matter what the theme, Pee-wee is a part of the mix. Makarovich, who said he has a "shrine" to the character at his home, insists on that. "It became sort of a creative niche to figure out where and how to place him," Witkowski said.

In a display that featured linens, he had a Pee-wee doll sit, undressed, in a tiny pool while his trademark gray suit dangled with the linens on a clothesline.

"The windows have always had some naughty, impish angles," Witkowski said. "But I also try to balance that with some visual poetry to hook the eye. … In this neighborhood, you've got to appease grandmothers en route to brunch, too."

It takes hours to take apart an old display and install a new one. Witkowski, who works days for a furniture refinishing company, might work 4 p.m. to midnight two days in a row to redo the display so the window doesn't look unfinished for long.

"Some regulars, they'll call all of sudden and say, 'Oh, I drove by and your window was empty, and I had a momentary panic. I thought you were gone,'" Witkowski said. "That's both a good laugh and enough assurance that people are looking."

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